HS Suspension for Online Bullying Upheld by 4th Cir.

By Cynthia Hsu, Esq. on August 02, 2011 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

A federal appeals court has recently upheld a student's suspension for internet bullying. The 4th Circuit's cyberbullying case, concerning a West Virginia student, ruled that the student's First Amendment rights were not violated when school officials punished her for creating a website from home.

The student in question, Kara Kowalski, had created a website called "S.A.S.H." from her home computer in 2005.

She said that the acronym stood for "Students Against Sluts Herpes," and that it was about STD awareness, but classmates said the acronym really stood for "Students Against Shay's Herpes." Shay N. was a student at the high school that Kowalski attended.

Kowalski was given a suspension by school officials after administrators received word of the website.

Kowalski had contended, in her lawsuit, that the school officials had violated her First Amendment rights to free speech in the cyberbullying case as she created the website off-campus.

While students do enjoy freedom of speech, their speech can be regulated. The Supreme Court has upheld the regulation of student's speech if it interfered with school work or discipline and creates "substantial disorder," or if it interferes with other students' rights, according to the 4th Circuit's opinion.

The court found that while the website, created on MySpace, had been made off-campus, since it was targeted at one student and was defamatory, it created enough disorder and disruption in the school such that school officials had the right to regulate it.

And, though Kowalski did not physically go to the school's campus to make the site, it was also very foreseeable that the site would be able to reach school computers, other students' smartphones. The webpage very well would make it to school property - and it did, as one of the first to access the website accessed it from a school computer.

As a result, he court affirmed Kowalski's suspension for internet bullying. Though, the 4th Circuit's cyberbullying case is not entirely definitive as to what school officials can do with regards to internet bullying by students - Sheri Bauman, a University of Arizona cyberbullying expert, says its likely courts will now have to consider what constitutes a "substantial disruption" in a school's learning environment that could trigger disciplinary action, reports the AP.

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